Breathing New Life Into Your Old Mac Pro

apple Jan 18, 2013

MacproThe Mac Pro (aka “The Cheese Grater”) is Apple’s top end hardware offering aimed at power users with demanding compute needs. Oddly enough, it is one of the most reasonably priced models in the workstation market. Another interesting feature is that the Mac Pro has the constitution of a vending machine. I purchased my Mac Pro in March 2008 and it is still serving me faithfully. However, operating systems progress (my Pro came with OS X Leopard and it is now running Mountain Lion) and place more stringent demands on older hardware (having been designed to take advantage of features found in newer equipment) so perceived performance seems to degrade over the years (which conspiracy theorists attribute to the innate evils of capitalism). 

However, the Mac Pro has a feature that no other Mac in the lineup has: easy access to its innards.

The Mac Pro is the “upgradeable” Mac. You can purchase Apple-branded and third-party components to enhance its performance. Here is what I did to make my run faster than when i first purchased it.

MEMORY

Today’s Mac Pro models come with 6GB of RAM in the most basic model. In contrast, my 2008 vintage model came with a paltry 2GB of RAM. This just goes to show you how much RAM prices have fallen and how much RAM is needed by the OS to run smoothly. So, if you are running Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8), you NEED to bump your RAM up above 6GB. In this case, Apple-branded memory is very overpriced. I recommend purchasing memory from Other World Computing as they are very competitively priced and back their products with a lifetime warranty.

I had previously doubled my system RAM to 4GB, so I added an 8GB kit (4 x 2GB) bringing my total up to 12GB. At this level, the OS now has plenty of room to maneuver without resorting to using a “paging file” (a technique where inactive items in memory are written to disk in order to free up space for active programs), there by improving overall responsiveness.

STORAGE

My Mac Pro came with a 320GB SATA HDD to hold everything. Current base Mac Pro’s come with a 1TB drive. Here’s what I recommend you do to improve performance.

  1. Use a split storage model to improve performance. Add a second (larger) drive to hold your documents. Once you add the drive, copy your document folders over, delete them from the boot drive and create shortcuts in the User folder to point to the new location.
  2. Add the biggest drive you can afford for Time Machine. Time Machine is the biggest blessing Apple ever included in its OS. If nothing else, it is the #1 reason to go with a Mac. Almost makes the system stupid-proof. Almost.
  3. Replace your Boot + Apps drive with a Solid State Drive (SSD). Solid State Drives have no moving parts. There is no lag due to pickup heads waiting for platters to spin into place. They are tiny little boxes of speed. I decided to take this one step further: I replaced my boot drive with a RAID 0 array of SSD drives.
You probably think I am crazy, but hear me out. What made this little miracle worth it was this:
 
Mb982spr 2s kit
 
The IcyDock EZ Converter Pro MB982SPR-2S Dual 2.5″ to 3.5″ SATA HDD & SSD Converter is a metal box the size of a 3.5″ SATA HDD with a hardware RAID controller built-in. This little gadget allows you to mount 2 2.5″ SSD (or HDD) drives in one slot in a Mac Pro (or a PC). There is software that you need to download from IcyDock’s website in order to set it up and it has Windows, Mac and Linux versions. 
 
Here are the steps to doing this:
  1. Purchase two (2) SSD drives. They must be of the same size and model. Make sure your two drives added together will give you more room than the amount of space used on the original boot drive. I had 240+ GB of stuff on my boot drive, so I purchased two 256GB SSDs.
  2. Assemble the EZ Converter Pro according to the instructions. Use a small common screwdriver to set the mode dial to “4” on the Ez Converter Pro. I used the second “4” and worked fine for me.
  3. Attach the assembled unit to an empty drive sled in the Mac Pro. DO NOT REPLACE THE BOOT DRIVE YET!
  4. Boot your Mac Pro. You will get a message about wanting to initialize the new drive. DO NOT INITIALIZE YET! Cancel out of that dialog box.
  5. If you have not installed the IcyDock RAID Manager, download it from here and install it. No reboot is required.
  6. Inside the RAID Manager, configure the two drives into a RAID 0 (Striped) Array.
  7. Exit the application and reboot your Mac Pro.
  8. You will be prompted to initialize the new drive. Please do so. I called mine Macintosh SSD.
  9. You will now need to clone your boot drive to the SSD array. I used SuperDuper! from Shirt-Pocket Software which makes short work of the project. The basic version is free and will allow you to clone the drives and make the array bootable and the start drive.
  10. Once the cloning process is done, shutdown your Mac Pro, replace the boot drive in slot 1 with the boot array and restart. You should be at the login screen in less than 10 seconds.

After doing this, you will discover what a speed bottleneck the HDD was to the whole process. Applications will fairly leap into action. Imagine going through life with an extra 200 pounds of weights on your arms, legs and shoulders and then suddenly having it removed. It’s that big a difference.

IMPORTANT! Since your boot drive will be a RAID 0, it is vitally important that you have a Time Machine drive configured and backing up your system. Should either of the drives in the array fail, then the array is kaput. If anything goes wrong in the process, put your old hard drive back and boot from it while you get the RAID array sorted out.

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